Saturday, August 09, 2014

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an important writer, and 1Q84 is an amazing and wonderful story.  But I must warn readers there are about a half-dozen explicit scenes, which account for about a dozen or so pages of 925 but are easy to spot and skip.  However, one such scene has important implications for the plot.  In part one and two of the novel, the chapters alternate between two characters.

Tengo is a 30 year-old-man who is a math prodigy and teaches at a cram school for students preparing for college.  He is a “gentle giant” figure and liked, loved, and respected by everyone he meets.  He pines for a woman he loved and lost.  He also works for a literary magazine.  While examining manuscripts submitted for an important literary prize for new authors, he comes across a wonderful story titled Air Chrysalis.  The manuscript purported to be written by a 17 year-old high school girl, Fuka-Eri, but it is full of errors and omissions, and it lacks clarity and organization.  Something about the story enchants Tengo, and he takes it to his editor.  Together, they decide to re-write the story to make it a prize winner.  Tengo is reluctant.  He recognizes the plan amounts to fraud.  He agrees to meet the peculiar young lady and her guardian.  They okay the plan, but Tengo says he will adhere to the voice of Fuka-Eri.  He rewrites the story, it wins the prize, and quickly becomes a best seller. 

Aomame is a 30 year-old woman who has a black belt in Karate, and works as a fitness coach and a physical therapist.  She lives alone, and dreams about a man she loved who is no longer in her life.  Aomame lost her best friend when she committed suicide as a result of a seriously dangerous husband who constantly physically abused her.  Aomame takes matters into her own hands and kills the husband.  She escapes cleanly, and, because of her skills in physical therapy, the death appeared to result from a heart attack.  Aomame partners with a woman who lost a daughter to spouse abuse, and she runs a home for abused women and children.  When one of the husbands shows up and attempts to cause trouble, Aomame takes care of him.  Aomame carries out her last murder of a powerful figure, and she is in hiding awaiting plastic surgery and escape to a place far away. 

In Part 3, a private investigator – a most unpleasant man by all and every measure – is hired by the dead man’s family to find Aomame.  They know who she is, but she has completely disappeared.  Ushigawa begins alternating chapters with Tengo and Aomame.

When Tengo was ten, he was teased by students, and had no friends.  Aomame was peculiar, and she also had no friends.  One day, Tengo was crying, and Aomame held his hand tightly for a few minutes.  Neither spoke a word.  She left the classroom, and he never saw her again.  20 years later, he begins searching for her.  Aomame has not forgotten Tengo either, but she is in hiding and cannot risk leaving the safe house to look for him.  The lives of these three people are closely intertwined in ways none of them fully comprehend.

Murakami has an amazing style.  His attention to detail can sometimes put off a reader, but the devil is in the details, as they say, and I have a clear and full picture of these characters and their habits.  He also uses frequent references to music and literature.  My recent review of In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki stemmed from this novel.  I have two other intriguing books on my shelf, which I hope will enlighten me as much as Shadows did.

Murakami’s 1Q84 is long, but it as an amazing story.  I was never bored, never had a moment of hesitation in turning to the next page.  I have admired this author for a long time, and any serious reader who enjoys a complicated story and the patience to make it all the way thorough the novel will agree.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/7/14

Sunday, August 03, 2014

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

One of my real joys about reading fiction involves a literary novel sprinkled with art, music, or literary allusions, which usually help round out a character.  These novels tend to the inhabit the category of intellectually challenging.  One writer who constantly challenges, amuses and intrigues me is Muraki Harikami.  Of the three of his novels I have read, all have music and art as a background.  His literary allusions – of Japanese and Western literature – always intrigue.  As I near the end of his latest novel, I have already ordered three books, which play an important role in the story.  Most often, these obscure books come as a complete surprise.  In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki really surprised me.

Tanizaki was born July 24, 1886 and he died July 30 1965) was aJapanese author, one of the major writers of modern Japanese Literature, and perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Soseki, who happens to be my favorite Japanese author.  Some of Tanizaki’s works present a rather shocking world of sexuality and destructive erotic obsessions, while others, are less sensational and subtly portray the dynamics of family life in the context of the rapid changes in 20th-century Japanese society. His stories frequently narrate a search for cultural identity in which constructions of "the West" and "Japanese tradition" are juxtaposed.

This essay on aesthetices was originally published in 1933, and the English translation came out in 1977 by Leete's Island Books.  The translation contains a forward by architect and educator Charles Moore and an afterword by one of the translators, Thomas J. Harper.  Harper was a Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature at the Australian national University in Canberra.  The other translator, Edward Seidensticker, was Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University.  Much shorter than the author's novels, this book is a meditative work, which tells the story of Tanizaki building his dream home.  He freely admits the house cost more than he could afford.

Tanizaki writes, “What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms – even someone who has never built a house for himself must sense this when he visits a teahouse, a restaurant, or an inn.  For the solitary eccentric, it is another matter.  He can ignore the blessings od scientific civilization and retreat to some forsaken corner of the countryside, but a man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back on the necessities of modern life – heating, electric lights, sanitary facilities – merely for the sake of doing things the Japanese way.  The purist may wrack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye” (1).

As a person who lives in a home decorated in the style of post-modern clutter – that is, everything in the place where it fits – I would have the opposite trouble: finding more wall space, more book shelves, and less empty spaces.

I now have a window on the character in the novel, whose meticulous attention to order seemed odd to me.  In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a pleasant read with a cup of tea one fine afternoon.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/30/14

Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

As my faithful listeners may recall, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is my favorite publisher of contemporary southern fiction.  I have several books by Lewis Nordan, and I decided to dip into one of his for a marathon session of summer reading.  Music of the Swamp tells the story of Sugar Mecklin and Roy Dale Conroy, two friends who live on the delta in Mississippi.  I am not sure of the time period of the story, but the lack of cell phones, computers, and cable television, push it back to the middle seventies.  Sugar’s dad drives a Ford Pinto, so that points to the middle to late 70s as well.  I actually enjoy solving these little puzzles while I am reading. 

As the author’s note informs us, Lewis Nordan is the author of seven books of fiction including several acclaimed novels.  He also wrote a memoir, and received many awards for his writing.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 2012.

Lewis Nordan has filled Music of the Swamp with some jolts and shocks, and a healthy dose of humor to go along.  Sugar describes Roy Dale as “white trash,” although from the description of Sugar’s father and family life, they are not so far off that mark either.  However the two boys are close friends, and they navigate the dangerous waters of alcoholic fathers and mothers who care little for housekeeping.

The humor concerns the boy’s view of these difficulties and their attitudes toward their parents.  Neither seems to have any other friends.  Sugar has a vivid imagination, which makes him an unreliable narrator.  Sugar loves to tell stories, and he frequently confesses his exaggerations.  Nordan writes,

“I suppose there is one more thing to tell.  For many years, after I was grown and no longer lived in Mississippi, I told this story to my friends.  And when I told it, I always added one detail that was not true.  // I always said that after we had settled down and had drifted off to sleep beneath the canvas roof of the tent, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of [his sister] Dixie Dawn’s sweet pure angelic voice in song.  I said that beneath the bright stars her voice was a crisp spirit, a lyrical hopeful pause in the terrible drama of our narrow lives.  I said – and even as I invented this I believed it – I said that in the foreign-language music of her song my ears and my heart opened up to a world larger and more generous than the world of my parents and our geography. // Now as I tell this story again, I forget I ever made up such a thing.  It is not true, of course.  Dixie Dawn did not wake up that night, so far as I knew.  As far as I know, she lay in her bed in a hard deliberate sleep, where song had put her and from which song could never draw her out” (45-46).

 Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp has a number of heartbreaking and heartwarming episodes.  He makes a reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page.  The tender moments of a young boy growing up under what I can most kindly describe as difficult circumstances make this short novel a pleasure to read.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/30/14 

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen, who is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, died this year on April 5 four days after the publication of his final novel.  In Paradise is a peculiar story.  It has the intensity of a work by an investigative journalist, with the compelling beauty of a wonderfully written novel. 

Clements Olin is an American scholar of Polish descent.  He travels to Poland to attempt to discover the identity of his mother.  He arrives to participate in a week-long retreat at Auschwitz.  Along with about 100 others, they pray, meditate, and eat and live in the quarters occupied by the German military officers in charge of the camp. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the eclectic group of people on this retreat.  There are devout Jews and Christians, Catholic nuns and monks, a defrocked priest, atheists and believers, Germans, Poles, American, English, and French citizens.  As the week progresses, emotions bubble to the surface, and things collapse into near chaos.

Even Olin questions his right to be there, as well as his purpose as a participant.  He is not Jewish, and has no apparent connection to the Holocaust.  He has a faded picture of a woman waving out a window, whom he believes to be his mother.  The woman lived in the town near the camp.  He tries to locate the house in the picture, but the townspeople are suspicious, and Olin fears violence. 

In his inimitable style, Matthiessen describes the landscape, “The road follows the Vistula upriver westward across the frozen landscape; blue-gray hills of the Tatra Mountains and Slovakia rise in the south.  Here and there along the way stand stone houses with steep roofs to shed the snows, most of them guarded by spiked iron fences (wolves and brigands?).  These dwellings crowd the road in seeming dread of those dark ranks of evergreens that march down the white faces of the hills beyond like Prussian regiments (or Austro-Hungarian or Russian) crossing some hinterland of Bloody Poland, which has no natural boundaries against invaders” (14).

Like the landscape, In Paradise has no natural boundaries.  People are pulled in from all over the world, and most are repulsed by the physical remnants of that unspeakable horror.  I found the narrative somewhat disturbing. 

Despite the negative aspects of the story, it was profoundly absorbing.  The characters, who spoke up during the retreat, revealed individual reasons for coming to Auschwitz.  Matthiessen held my attention to the last word.  I had already seen and heard these stories many times, but Matthiessen put a new face on the evil.  He showed how the experience changed the characters – most prominently, Clements Olin himself.  If you have never read any literature of the holocaust, In Paradise represents a new look at a story that cannot, must not ever be forgotten.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/29/14